The unranked Tigers beat 24th-ranked Ole Miss 30-22 on Saturday, securing their fourth victory of the season. The worst that 4-1 Auburn can finish is 4-8.
In every math known to the civilized world, that’s better than 3-9, which is how far Auburn fell in 2012.
At 2-1 in the SEC, Auburn already has two more league victories than it had in 2012, so there’s that, too.
But the victory over Ole Miss on Saturday summed up other, more subtle signs of improvement in Auburn’s football health a year after its football coma.
One, Auburn once again can win games it has to win, and make no mistake. Auburn had to win the Ole Miss game.
The schedule ahead includes Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, games in which Auburn won’t be favored, so the Tigers need to win the winnable games. So far, so good, with victories over Washington State, Arkansas State, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Two, an Auburn program that hasn’t played Auburn-like defense in five years is starting to show signs.
Note the pressure Auburn kept on Ole Miss’ quarterbacks all night, mounting six sacks, all from defensive linemen. The six sacks marked Auburn's most since 11 in the 2005 Iron Bowl.
Note Robenson Therezie’s 78-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
Note Ryan Smith’s fourth-quarter interception when Auburn was protecting a 27-22 lead, and note Smith’s big fourth-down tackle to stop Ole Miss short of a first down by a yard late in the third quarter.
The Tigers gave up a couple of big pass plays on Ole Miss’ two touchdown drives, but that’s the bad they took with the good to keep pressure on Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti.
Auburn won Saturday night much more because of a defense that spent 21 minutes on the field in the first half and 32 minutes over four quarters, but bent much more than it broke.
In the end, Ole Miss had three possessions against a one-score deficit or less and couldn’t go anywhere. Fittingly, the last two Rebel snaps went for Auburn sacks.
A defense that can keep Auburn in winnable games goes a long way toward winning them, including road games to come at Tennessee and Arkansas.
And that sets up the possibilities that remain for the Tigers.
If Auburn wins the winnable games ahead, then a team that most had pegged for six victories, maybe seven could end up with eight. The Tigers should beat Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic at home, and then it comes down to Arkansas and Tennessee on the road Nov. 2 and 9.
But Auburn has gotten all it could out of the season’s first five games. Even in the one loss at LSU, the Tigers rallied for 21 points in the second half and nearly had 28 with a chance for an onsides kick.
They showed they won’t quit, and that’s just one of many signs of improved football health for an Auburn program that seemed in critical condition a year ago.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.